For two glorious days Janina and I have been in the presence of that magnifcent giant of Provence, Le Mont Ventoux, cycling along its northern perimeter with its bald head and weather station looking down upon us. Three times I have cycled to its summit during the era of Armstrong, so I was feeling no strong attraction to ride its steep ascent, content to be skirting it this time, which required no small effort. We were infected by the glee of dozens of other cyclists, many in packs, who were embarking on a dream ride up one of the three roads that would take them to the summit.
Janina was one of the few women amongst all the MAMILS (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) on the roads flanking Ventoux, most of whom were on a mission to reach its storied summit. That didn't necessarily make her proud, as her judgement was that there were so women to be seen on bikes here because they aren't so stupid to be engaged in such an endeavor. She was suffering and straining as we endured two strenuous climbs of over one thousand feet and two others of around five hundred feet, though she wasn't necessarily regretting her experience as she couldn't help but revel at this spectacular setting.
After our first descent from a long climb, we were hoping it would be all down hill for the rest of the day. We were so convinced that we would be gliding down for miles and miles through the narrow valley we found ourselves in, we at first refused to believe the road had turned slightly upwards. When Janina's speed fell below ten miles per hour she said, "Something must be wrong with my bike. Is something rubbing." I looked over at the creek we were following and noticed the water was coming towards us, not with us, confirming we were climbing.
One of our many breaks came at a grove of cherry trees where we filled our stomachs and my trusty Tupperware bowl. We didn't finish off the cherries though when we discovered they were infested with tiny white worms, explaining why they were unpicked.
Despite the strain that had me giving her an assist for long stretches, her spirits were buoyed by the steady flow of passing cyclists, some of whom turned to give her a closer look and give her a "Bravo" or "Bon Courage." She also received a thumbs up from the driver of a support vehicle trailing a cluster of cyclists coming towards us. "I feel as if I'm part of the cycling fraternity," she said.
She was happy to plop down anywhere along the road for a rest often with the company of The Ventoux in the distance. We were fueled by a bag of pain au chocolate from a small bakery when Janina got our daily baguette and saw a pile of them on the counter. She asked in her increasingly fluent French if they were from "hier," (yesterday). They were, meaning they could be had for a pittance.
Another of our breaks came at the small village of St. Leger-du-Ventoux to fill our water bottles from its twin spigots spouting perhaps the best tasting water in all of France. I well remembered it from previous rides along this route. While we were there the Green Party candidate for Sunday's election of legislators came by to mount his poster on the set of panels every town has for election posters and other announcements. He quickly drew a crowd who engaged him in animated conversation for quite some time.
A later semi-rest stop was devoted to repairing a flat tire. Fortunately it wasn't one of our own, but rather of a motorist who couldn't figure out how to work his jack. He had just a flimsy wrench to detach the bolts holding the tire on so flagged down a motorist, a German in a Fiat, who had a much stronger four-armed device that gave plenty of leverage. It was a nice international collaboration. I had put on my Garmin jersey for the first time to see if it might elicit a reaction from all the uniformed cyclists, but it drew nary a comment.
Late in the afternoon as we were an hour into another long climb with grades over six per cent that had Janina walking and walking. She was wilting from the heat as much as the strain. A sign advertising for a gite, a bed-and-breakfast, a kilometer up the road was too good to be true. Janina declared, no matter the cost, that is where we would spend the night. When we arrived at five p.m. no one was at home. There was a phone number to call, but we had no phone, so we sat at a table out front and nibble on bread and cheese.
The price of 65 euros seemed a little steep, but not for the misery Janina was in. She had been biking (and walking) since nine a.m. with multiple short breaks and just one of more than half an hour and had only twenty-five miles for all her efforts. Every break revived her to a degree and after twenty minutes when no one had returned and she had had a chance to recover a bit, she elected to continue. We were only a mile from the summit and then had a four mile descent to Séderon and its campground.
It was another strenuous push to the summit, where we were rewarded by another fine descent and then the best campsite of our travels, a small municipal campground with no frills, just what we needed after our campground of the night before in Vaison la Romain that had five swimming pools and slides galore and a kitschy castle that should have been an embarrassment to any Frenchman with taste.
We were instantly greeted by one of the several campers in this small campground that had no check-in procedure or reception. It wasn't until the next morning that the caretaker asked us for eleven euros and said ten was enough when I started fishing around for a single euro after I'd given him a ten. It was our quietest campground and the first where we could hear church bells marking the hours. We also had a conversation for the first time with a fellow camper--an older French cyclist who worked as a park ranger. He confirmed that none of the French national parks had campgrounds, though one could camp discreetly. He had bright red brand new Ortliebs and said this was his first tour in nearly thirty years since he spent six months biking India and Nepal. He would have preferred to be wild camping, but he was out of practice and hadn't been able to find a suitable place.
He was a gentle sort with a permanent smile. He wasn't even harsh when it came to Trump, only referring to his presidency as "bad casting." We asked him about France's parliamentary election on Sunday. He said his wife would be able to vote for him, though he knew their preferred green candidate had no chance of winning. He was headed in the direction we had just come, so we couldn't continue on together. He was envious of us heading to the Goldsworthy sculptures. He was well aware of them, and even had a DVD of the Goldsworthy documentary. We're excited to be within fifty miles of them. Janina has been holding up marvelously. She's recovered every day to be eager to be at it the next.